Leave it to The Boss to craft a masterful musical ode to the plight of working people in a frightful economy.
Bruce Springsteen, 62 and nearly four decades into one of the most sterling careers in rock ‘n’ roll, just released Wrecking Ball. It’s been three years since his last album, and in that time, untold damage has been wrought on his core audience.
Springsteen — who jokingly referred to his outsized reputation as the poet of the working class during his funny, rambling, touching and enlightening keynote speech at last week’s South by Southwest conference in Austin — has been a member of the “one percent” at least as long as I’ve been a fan, when he released the massive-selling Born in the U.S.A. in 1984.
And that contradiction hasn’t been lost on Springsteen, who in one of the better lyrics from a pair of albums released simultaneously in the early ’90s, wrote: “It’s a sad funny ending when you find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”
Even so, he’s never lost sight of the themes he’s been writing about at least since 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, the struggles and triumphs of people like the ones he grew up with in small-town New Jersey.
And, much like he did with 2002’s The Rising, an album-length response to the September 2001 attacks and their aftermath, he writes about the causes and effects of the economic downtown with intelligence, heart and unflinching honesty.
With the fierce but hopeful opening track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” Bruce lays out his primary thesis: in an America where all the institutions seem to have failed, it’s up to the people to look after each other.
“I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone,” he sings in his trademark rasp. “The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.” But still, he declares, “Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own.”
Throughout Wrecking Ball, Springsteen — long known for his populist, progressive leanings even when Ronald Reagan was trying to co-opt him during his 1984 reelection campaign — minces no words for those he blames for the current economic morass.
“Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill,” he sings in “Shackled and Drawn,” a kind of amped-up country/rock/blues number reminiscent of his work on 1982’s Nebraska.
The next tune, “Jack of All Trades,” is a haunting paen to those who do the dirtiest, most thankless jobs. Throughout, the narrator stubbornly holds on to hope (“I’m the jack of all trades, honey we’ll be all right”) right up until the last verse, where things take a strikingly darker turn.
In his past several records, Bruce has drawn on both home-grown and contemporary musical genres while still somehow keeping true to his classic sound. That’s on full display here, with “Death to My Hometown” played in the style of an Irish protest song (while also serving as an angrier update to his mid-’80s elegy, “My Hometown”).
In the new song, Springsteen calls out the “robber barons” who “raided in the dark” to wreak havoc on the economy. “They destroyed our families, factories and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones.”
That’s followed up by “This Depression,” perhaps the most heartbreaking song on the album, whose title refers both to the economic climate and the narrator’s state of mind. “Baby, I’ve been down, but never this down,” he sings. “I’ve been lost, but never this lost.”
Then there’s the title track, which is a bit of an oddity. Springsteen wrote it to mark the 2009 demolition of the old Giants Stadium, and the song is written in the voice of … the stadium. But in a unique twist on Springsteen’s gift for making the specific general and vice versa, the lyrics are transformed into a commentary on the times: “C’mon and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got/Bring on your wrecking ball.”
But the album’s not all doom and gloom. In “You’ve Got It,” Springsteen pens a scorchingly bluesy song of desire that harkens back to earlier tunes like “Fire” (famously covered by the Pointer Sisters) and “I’m On Fire,” performed with a directness designed to make his most ardent admirers sigh.
That’s followed by one of the most surprising songs on the record, “Rocky Ground,” Springsteen’s fullest entry yet into the world of hip-hop. But Springsteen’s take on that most modern of sounds is actually laden with Biblical imagery, helped along with a beautiful vocal assist from Michelle Moore.
As the album nears a close, Springsteen brings in a reworking of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which first gained attention during Springsteen’s 2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band, but which fits seamlessly into the new record’s themes.
Imagining the country (or perhaps the world) as a big train barrelling through the wilderness, Springsteen invites us all to embark on a road to redemption. “This train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners/This train carries whores and gamblers/This train carries lost souls.” But it’s a train where “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded.”
When the late Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons (who died last year) lets out one of his wailing sax solos, it’s one of the brightest spots on the album. In the liner notes, Springsteen writes movingly of his longtime friend and bandmate: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
The E Street Band will soon be bringing its train to a town near you. If you’d like your faith rewarded, I’d advise you to get on board.
Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.